Driving to Wisconsin’s North Woods is a decade’s old adventure for me and inspired so many of my interests as well as my professional life today.
Way ahead of packing up the family station wagon, as a child I’d daydream about everything from catching frogs and bluegill to picking blueberries in the woods with my mother. When we finally got on the road, the trip often included a stop in Whitewater (my father’s home town in southern Wisconsin) and lunch with my Grandparents Steve (the town doctor) and CeeCee. It all revolved around the big backyard garden planted with Grandpa Doctor’s seeds which grew to become the food that was cooked in CeeCees kitchen and served on the big table on the screened in porch. Even though Grandma had most of the many dishes ready as we arrived for our 3 pm supper, she often asked me to harvest tomatoes or currents from the ½ acre plot outside the back door—a chore I adored. Thinking back, it was not because she needed the crop for the meal but probably sent me to the garden to ‘get this energetic kid out of the house’!
I grew to love my Grandmother’s pickled vegetables from that garden. Now as a chef, I appreciate the effort, but as a kid I was somewhat oblivious to the work involved several days prior to our arrival where she “put up” vegetables that would help serve a large group quickly on the patio for a summer supper. They added a spark of vinegar and delicious color to the table, a plate of pickled green beans next to the red beets, served alongside a plate of braised beef covered in her fabulous tomato “sweet chili” sauce—I never knew how good I had it until those days were gone.
In Montclair, New Jersey (my mother’s hometown), similar experiences come to mind that have shaped my other passion: fishing. No gardens, but certainly a loving family with Grandma and Grandpa Andre happy to receive us.
Grandpa had a successful business in Manhattan where he sold skis in the winter and fishing gear in the summer. For years during my visits to his home, I would sneak up to his packed attic to look at the gear, some of his personal kit and unsold goods, and especially explore his stash of fly rods. Finally, one day when I was twelve, heading off to a new summer camp in Colorado, Grandpa surprised me with my first fly rod: a Martin James 4 weight with a reel, line, extra spools of leader and a box of dry flies. My Grandfather was a strict man and he knew this was a stretch, I guess that’s why it meant so much.
As he handed me the fly rod in the attic in 1971, my Grandpa taught me to take time to roll the hozzle of the rod on my nose, right next to my cheek. “Roll it slowly” he’d say. “Allow the hozzle to be coated by all of the oil on your nose, then slip it carefully into the upper piece of the rod. This will lubricate the hozzle just enough so that when you take the rod down it will separate easily and not break the hozzle from its connection to the bamboo.” And then he cautioned me not to worry too much, just try hard to catch lots of fish.
With the help of a few older campers from Texas, I quickly learned to set the fly rod up with a Zebco 202 (closed face spinning reel) and use a bubble to add weight to the cast. It worked like a charm, and after a month, I won the best fisherman in camp award. Grandpa’s flies and the Martin James rod did the trick including catching a bat one night just as the moon rose up over the Maroon Bells.
You might be wondering what all of this has to do with Schreiner’s Restaurant and Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin. Well, it has everything to do with what I found there and learned about myself and why I’m stepping out of the kitchen and going fishing.
The time warp experience of sitting down at the counter in Schreiner’s last week and enjoying a fresh, delicious plate of chicken salad, surrounded by a room full of people like my grandparents set off a flood of memories that made me come to an important life realization: I was raised by people who care and by a family who introduced me to a unique view of the world.
As I slow down and take the time to visit these places in the heartland of America I am struck with how important it is to get in touch with these basic values and reincorporate them into my life today.
Walking into Schreiner’s, I had a warm feeling like I was in the right place as I was greeted by a young man named Hunter at the host stand. Hunter was wearing a crisp white shirt and a black bow tie, just like I imagine the host would wear at my Grandmother’s favorite supper club in Whitewater, The Duck Inn. As I made my way to the counter, Paul, a Schreiner’s employee of 42 years, as shown on the name tag on his shirt, politely handed me the lens cap that I had dropped on my way in. He had taken the time to find the customer holding a camera that matched the lens he found on the floor of the restaurant.
This thoughtfulness and the comfortable tradition of Schreiner’s made me think about the value of taking the back roads. In all the recent years, when I would fly to visit my mother I would take the newer interstate, with only McDonald’s and gas stations nearby, to get there faster. This time I thought it would be a good idea to try a new route, an older highway, the US 41. It might have taken a few minutes longer but a visit to Schreiner’s made the long way worth it. Allowing myself to slow down opens new doors that I miss when rushing.
The dining room was almost full with a wide variety of locals and tourists like me stopping in for early supper. While I chose the chicken salad, served appropriately with melon, sliced tomatoes and cottage cheese, just as CeeCee would have served it, others were enjoying the haddock or perhaps fried chicken both offered as a “full plate” or “light plate”. “Ace”, today’s bright cheerful waitress, the same young women who’d served my mother and me last month, sported the same name tag showing 2 years of service. So here’s to you Ace, Hunter and Paul—and all of the people who work with a smile on their face in full service establishments across America. You make traveling fun and a little easier and, at the same time, bring me back to childhood memories, with my fly rod close at hand, setting out on the next big adventure.